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SWINDON TOWN: Be afraid, Villa. Be very afraid.
I TELL you what, if Paolo Di Canio and his Swindon Town team viewed this game as less important than the visit of Aston Villa then the Premier League big boys are in for one hell of a ride tomorrow.
There were so many moments of individual and collective class from the Robins at Broadhall Way that it seems unfair to condense the display into a 1,000-word report.
Truth being told, you could write a dissertation on how to dominate an opponent from the example of Town’s efforts in Hertfordshire alone.
From front to back, from start to finish, Swindon made a mockery of form and statistics to show just how devastating they can be with their minds focused and their potential fully realised.
It’s hard to believe Stevenage began the day unbeaten at home since January and sitting second in the League One table.
For, 90 minutes later, they had been dissected and disassembled by a Robins side featuring six changes to its personnel and a total shift in attitude on the pitch.
As much as the hosts were woeful, constantly giving away possession and looking about as frightening in attack as a cheapo Hallowe’en costume, Swindon played them off the park.
With John Bostock and Tommy Miller pulling the strings like fleet-fingered puppeteers in the middle of midfield, a defence boasting four centre-backs had little to do and, barring one brilliant first-half save, goalkeeper Wes Foderingham could justifiably have been charged £21 for the privilege of watching his teammates in action in front of him.
And as if the total destruction of a team who had gone 18 home matches without defeat wasn’t satisfaction enough for the 926 travelling Town fans, there was a brilliant full debut for 18-year-old striker Miles Storey.
In an age where the development of youth can be sacrificed in the pursuit of success, Storey has forced himself into Di Canio’s reckoning and, in a 60-minute performance oozing quality and maturity beyond his years, the former Coventry kid with a bright future dazzled up top.
He could have had a hat-trick in his hour on the pitch, scuffing a sixth-minute effort into Boro keeper Steve Arnold’s hands and seeing a second-half header brilliantly palmed over by the home custodian, but in the end he had to settle for one.
Still, he is unlikely to forget his 38th-minute header and the Swindon supporters chanting his name as a result.
By the time Storey struck, however, the Robins were already out of sight.
Raffa De Vita opened the scoring with his second goal in as many games before Matt Ritchie leathered home from the edge of the area.
Miller missed the chance to further extend the lead when he saw his penalty saved by Arnold after Alan McCormack had been upended in the box but it never looked likely that Stevenage would be able to haul themselves back into the contest.
Again, Town perhaps should have had more as they squandered a series of second-half chances, though Adam Rooney came off the bench to score with his first touch and cap a display that warmed the hearts and toes of the traveling Wiltshire contingent on a bitterly cold afternoon at Broadhall Way.
With Troy Archibald-Henville taken ill in the warm-up, Miller came into a starting XI that did not include a host of first-team regulars.
And the former Huddersfield man started the move that almost led to Town’s first goal in the sixth minute.
He fed the ball wide to Joe Devera, who crossed to the back post. Paul Benson leapt to play the ball inside to Storey who should have done better than miscue his attempt straight at Arnold.
A minute later Benson was poleaxed by Arnold as he punched a long ball clear but referee Darren Deadman waved away claims for a penalty.
Di Canio’s angry glow briefly warmed the press box.
But the Town boss couldn’t stay grumpy for long as De Vita fired the visitors ahead in the 17th minute.
Storey crossed deep to the back post, Ritchie did his best impression of a salmon to beat Mark Roberts in the air and nod across goal and De Vita’s technique was perfect as he controlled the ball with his right foot and volleyed with his left on the turn to beat Arnold.
Already unsettled by the crisp passing and dynamic movement offered by Swindon in the opening moments, Stevenage crumbled.
All composure was readily abandoned as long balls missed their targets with the sort of regularity you’d associate with governmental departments.
Town were lupine in the scavenging in midfield, where Bostock proved he has strength in the tackle to go with an abundance of creativity with ball at feet.
And, just past the half-hour, the game was practically over as a contest.
Benson challenged for a high ball in the box and, when the rebound dribbled to Ritchie 20 yards from goal, the winger thrashed a drive through Arnold’s legs. Easy, easy, easy.
Three minutes later, with the game snowballing in Swindon’s favour, Miller had the opportunity to make it three.
McCormack’s trademark dart from defence ended with a Stevenage leg hacking him down inside the area, referee Deadman pointed to the spot and Miller sidefooted the penalty kick towards the bottom left-hand corner.
Arnold had other ideas, however, diving full stretch to tip it round the post.
It was a solitary moment of delight for the Stevenage fans as, seven minutes before half-time, Storey notched Town’s third.
Ritchie’s delicate chipped cross from the right was inch perfect but Storey’s finish was sublime, hanging in the air Matrix-style to guide his header home.
It completed a first-half blitzkrieg that stunned the home crowd, who grew ever more restless in the stands. Not even Filipe Morais’ deflected effort, which drew a brilliant save out of Foderingham, lifted the spirits. Any hopes of a second-half comeback, which were forlorn in the first place, were well and truly extinguished just after the hour mark.
Rooney replaced Storey, who had seen his looping header tipped over by Arnold and a left-footed drive ruffle the side-netting in the first 15 minutes after the break, and quickly he was on the scoresheet.
Bostock played a delightful pass through the Stevenage defence, Rooney’s first touch shifted the ball from right to left before he drilled beyond Arnold.
Game won Swindon showboated, but not through dainty flicks or unnecessary pirouettes. The Robins showed utter disdain for their hosts by shifting possession from front to back and left to right with a casual ease and grace that hasn’t been seen since the extraordinary first half at Stoke in the Capital One Cup in August.
Chances were limited in the match’s final third; Bostock curled a free-kick wide and Aden Flint nodded past the post from a corner, but by then the damage had been done.
Stevenage’s players were left to look back on their heaviest-ever Football League defeat, Town’s to look forward to a massive evening at the County Ground tomorrow.
Maybe every game should be as unimportant as this.